May 26, 2010

Something you can do about the Special Diet Allowance Program

Here is something you can do about the Provincial Government's plan to cancel the Special Diet Allowance Program and replace it with a new nutritional supplement program. (See my Special Diet Anxiety post). The new program will be delivered by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, led by Minister Deb Matthews.

Just today the Toronto Star ran a story about what the Special Diet Allowance means for a mother and her young son -- and what it may mean if they are cut out of the new program.

Now is the time to let the Government know that Ontario needs a nutritional supplement program that works for people.

The 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction, with the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO) and the ODSP Action Coalition, has issued "Five Principles for a New Nutritional Supplement Program." They talk about the need for a program with a clear policy objective that is accessible, adequate and treats people fairly. They call for a program that provides monetary support and not just a program that provides vouchers for nutritional beverages or vitamins. They urge the Government to ensure that people already receiving a special diet allowance are not made worse off due to the change. And they call on the Government to take the time to get the new program right.

Read the full "Five Principles" statement.

Take action. Here is what you can do.

1. Endorse the Five Principles. 25 in 5 is seeking endorsements from individuals as well as groups and organizations. (MCC Ontario has endorsed the Five Principles.)
2. Send an e-mail to the Government using 25 in 5's automatic e-mail.
3. Share your support for these Five Principles with your MPP.
You can find out who your MPP is by going to Elections Ontario.
After finding the name of your riding, click on “information about your MPP”.

May 13, 2010

The pen is mightier than the blog...

So, I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and have created this blog.

Then just the other day someone sends my this video link about how a hand-written letter is the most effective way to communicate with politicians.

Here is the description of the video:

Politicians are strange creatures, says politician Omar Ahmad. And the best way to engage them on your pet issue is a monthly handwritten letter. Ahmad shows why old-fashioned correspondence is more effective than email, phone or even writing a check -- and shares the four simple steps to writing a letter that works.

O.K. I was almost convinced by his argument. You see, I had sent an e-mail to my Member of Parliament, Stephen Woodworth, a couple of weeks ago. It was to voice my dismay that the Federal Government had abruptly canceled the EcoEnergy Program -- see my Energy Poverty post. (I also e-mailed my member of Provincial Parliament, John Milloy, to say I was glad the Provincial Government was sticking with their Home Energy Saving Program.)

I wrote this blog (long-hand) the other day and was all ready to do this experiment and try sending my e-mails as hand-written letters to test Omar's contention that an e-mail is just spam. But when I got home, what did I find in the mail? A letter from Stephen Woodworth answering my e-mail, in more detail (and with no typos, unlike my e-mail), I should add, than my original e-mail.

So is Omar right or wrong? Well one caveat to my story. I had already developed a relationship with both Stephen and John over the years, through correspondence and meetings. So, I think the core of Omar's argument -- that it is about establishing a good relationship with your MP or MPP or city councilor, whether you agree with them or not -- is absolutely correct.

I have learned, too, from political staffers whom I have met that there is a hierarchy in the types of communication they receive. Letters, whether printed or handwritten letters (so long as they are legible), have the most impact. Ten letters on a particular subject, one senior staffer for a former Minister of Human Resources told me, sends up a flag that this is an issue they have to address. It takes probably ten times more e-mails to have that effect.

What happens when you get a form letter response? That is good. That means the issue has been raised by enough people that they have had to formulate a response.

What do you do then? Pick up your pen (or sit at your computer) and write back. "Thank you for your response to my letter..." I have some more questions for you.

Try it. And let me know your experience.

Now I have to write a follow-up letter to Stephen Woodworth about the EcoEnergy Program.


May 11, 2010

Tackling Energy Poverty

My colleague Darren Kropf, who leads MCC Ontario's Creation Care work, asked me to write an article about Energy Poverty for the latest issue of the MISE (Mennonite Initiative for Solar Energy) Newsletter.

Energy poverty is an issue that impacts alot of the people MCC Ontario works with in our different Ontario programs.

During the recent ISARC social audit in Waterloo Region, it was one of the main issues a local social housing provider was dealing with. They own a number of older homes that are heated by oil and poorly insulated. For tenants, winter months create a crisis of trying to decide whether and how to keep the oil tank from running dry while trying to keep food on the table.

Here is the article from the MISE Newsletter.

Energy Matters


Energy Poverty
Greg deGroot-Maggetti

What do you do when the fridge is empty and you cannot even afford to keep it running?

Electricity rates in Ontario are set to rise this summer. For most of us that is either a minor nuisance or an incentive to take those energy saving steps we have been putting off.

But for people who have been struggling just to put food on the table and keep a roof over head, rising energy costs make a bad situation worse.

Energy poverty – when utility costs eat up a disproportionate part of your budget – impacts between 1 to 3 million households in Canada. For low income renters, whose utility costs are included in their rent, energy poverty often comes in the form of unaffordable rent. Either way, energy poverty adds an extra burden to people struggling to scrape by.

Rising energy costs are not a bad thing in the big picture. They more closely reflect the real environmental, social and health costs of producing energy. And they provide a positive incentive to pursue conservation.

But energy poverty is a bad thing. Tackling energy poverty requires action in two ways. One is making sure people have enough income to pay for basics – food, shelter, transportation, clothing and utilities. Another is taking steps to upgrade the energy efficiency of low income households. This includes social housing stack as well as private rental and owned housing of low income households.

Fixing the income side means making sure jobs pay a decent wage. It also means fixing the social assistance system. Social assistance rates now ensure that people live deep in poverty. The housing portion does not come close to covering actual rental costs. The basic needs portion is not even enough to afford the basic nutritional requirements set out by Health Canada, let alone other basics like transportation, toiletries and utilities. Groups like the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction* and the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition* are working at this end.

Tackling the energy side are groups like the Low Income Energy Network (LIEN)* and Green Communities Canada*. LIEN has produced a six-step guide for tenants to organize conservation efforts in their apartment buildings. A Green Communities Canada conference in 2008 laid out a road map for tackling energy poverty.

We need to support work on the income and energy side to help people keep the fridge full and running – to put an end to energy poverty.
Greg serves as Poverty Advocate for MCC Ontario.

May 10, 2010

Tax Freedom or What have the Romans ever done for us?

Just before this year’s tax deadline, the Fraser Institute issued a new thing called the Consumer Tax Index. They describe it as “an index of the tax bill … for the period 1961 to 2009.

Erin Weir and Iglika Ivanova, on the Progressive Economics Forum blog, have picked apart the flawed assumptions in the study.

For my part, this latest offering from the folks who brought us Tax Freedom Day has me thinking of Monty Python. Remember the sketch from Life of Brian where John Cleese as the anti-Roman zealot is trying to foment rebellion against the accursed occupiers?

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” he argues. The others in the room sheepishly put forward things like roads, aqueducts, wine, safe streets.

The implication behind Tax Freedom Day is that taxes are a burden imposed on us, one that limits our freedom. In a very narrow sense, that might seem the case, especially when it comes time to file your tax return.

But there is another perspective on taxes and freedom. Consider the many ways that taxes increase your freedom.

Start with education – arguably one of the greatest contributors to human freedom. Education expands choices in life and work. The evidence on earnings is overwhelmingly positive -- on the whole, more education translates into higher earnings.

Many years ago, access to education was limited to the fortunate few who could afford the cost of private education. Now tax-funded public education makes primary and secondary schooling available to almost everyone in Canada. Tax funding for post-secondary education puts this within reach of many more people than fifty or sixty years ago.

Tax funded public health care is another great contributor to human freedom. It is not just because it means almost everyone can get timely health care. It also means your access to basic health care is not tied to the job you have.

Consider retirement. During the recent financial collapse, many private pension funds went into crisis. People found their retirement savings were far less than what they thought there were. Canada’s tax funded public pension system remains on a firm footing. Funded through payroll taxes – the Canada Pension Plan – and general tax revenue – Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement – Canada’s public pension system has freed scores of seniors from penury.

But there are other areas where taxes could expand our freedoms. Many people who have decent jobs get preventive dental care through employer provided health insurance, for which they pay premiums. People who work in precarious jobs, don’t have extended health benefits. And for folks who rely on social assistance, coverage is not for preventive care. More often than not it means having your teeth pulled. We could have more freedom if there was tax-funded public dental care for everyone.

Prescription drugs are another area where our freedoms could be expanded through a tax-funded public program.

As I filed my tax return and as I prepare to pay a little more in Harmonized Sales Tax, I say “Amen” for the freedoms my taxes buy me. If anything, I am ready to pay more taxes – and lower private insurance premiums – to pay for public dental care and pharmacare, lower tuition costs, more affordable housing, and more affordable early learning and child care. In the end, my personal freedoms are expanded when I live in a society where everyone shares those freedoms more fully.

May 5, 2010

25 in 5 E-bulletin Special Diet and Social Assistance

The 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction's latest e-bulletin focuses on the Special Diet Allowance and Social Assistance.

Here's a taste of what it includes.

25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction

For May 5, 2010: Special Diet and Social Assistance


In this week's eBulletin:

- Quote of the Week
- Open Letter to Premier McGuinty: Social Assistance Decisions Call Commitment into Question
- Take Action: Contact your MPP about Special Diet!
- Restraint Hits Poor the Hardest: Linda McQuaig on Special Diet in the Toronto Star
- Put Food in the Budget Meeting Draws a Crowd
- Community Living Advocates ‘Stay Home'
- Call for Nominations for 2010 Rosemarie Popham Family Advocacy Award
- 25 in 5 Provincial Leadership Assembly May 17-18


Quote of the Week:

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Who said it? Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States from 1933-1945. His words still ring true today.


Open Letter to Premier McGuinty:

Budget Decisions on Social Assistance Call Commitment into Question

25 in 5 has sent the following letter to Premier McGuinty.

We'll let you know when we receive a response.


Dear Premier McGuinty,

As organizations committed to the mission to reduce poverty, we write to express our serious concern about recent moves your government has taken on the poverty front.

More than a year into Ontario's efforts to reduce poverty by 25% by 2013, your government has made the following moves that call into question your government's commitment to meeting its own poverty reduction goals:

1) Ending the Special Diet Allowance Program without a previous and clearly thought through replacement plan, which will result in a significant drop in income for people on social assistance who have health-related nutritional needs;

2) Allowing, for the first time since 2006, social assistance rate increases to fall below the rate of inflation.

These actions are distressing, and - without adequate and commensurate resolution - threaten the health and safety of many struggling individuals in this province.

Read the entire letter.

To receive the 25 in 5 e-bulletin, send an e-mail to :

May 4, 2010

Special Diet Anxiety

Budget 2010 in Ontario announced the end of the Special Diet Allowance program. This is a program for people on social assistance -- Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program -- who have special dietary needs due to a medical condition.

Mennonite Central Committee Ontario wrote to Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community and Social Services, to ask her to explain why the program was cut and what the Government is going to do to make sure people are not worse off under the new nutritional supplement program that is supposed to replace it.

Needless to say, anyone who relies on the Special Diet Allowance program to supplement their meagre basic allowance is more than a little anxious about what this will mean. That includes many of the people MCC Ontario works with in our poverty and restorative justice programs.

Here is a little of what MCC Ontario had to say:

The Budget documents explain that “The Special Diet Allowance (SDA) is a social assistance benefit that helps people pay for extra food costs related to specific medical conditions.” The documents go on to say that “the Auditor General of Ontario reported that many applications for the SDA were associated with questionable circumstances and recommended that the government review the allowance so as to limit its possible abuse.” They conclude that “the SDA is not sustainable and is not achieving the intended results.”

We need to know from you specifically why the Government sees the Special Diet Allowance program is not sustainable.

 How is the Special Diet Allowance program not achieving the result of helping people “pay for extra food costs related to specific medical conditions?”

 What specifically are the “questionable circumstances” associated with many applications for the Special Diet Allowance?

 What percentage of applications is associated with these “questionable circumstances”?

 What is the Government doing to make sure that people who rely on the Special Diet Allowance program will not be made worse off in the transition to the new nutritional supplement program?

The contention that the Special Diet Allowance program is not sustainable suggests that the Government sees the elimination of the SDA program as a cost saving measure. MCCO’s main concern is with the well-being of the people whom we serve. However, we also find it hard to understand how seeking cost-savings through eliminating the special diet allowance program makes fiscal sense. People need the special diet program to safeguard their health. Losing this supplemental income will increase the likelihood of people’s health declining. This can only add to the burden on Ontario’s health system, driving up costs and may well have direct impact on increased victimization and incarceration levels.

That is why MCCO urges the Provincial Government to guarantee that the changes announced in the Budget ensure that people in need of the Special Diet Allowance are not made worse off, but that the new program strengthen supports for people with special dietary needs.

Do you or somebody you know rely on the Special Diet Allowance Program?

What will losing the program mean?

And what was it like getting signed up to the Special Diet?

For more on the Special Diet Allowance, check out the Income Security Advocacy Centre's analysis: